The Cowboy's Pride

By: Charlene Sands

One




The Arizona sky over Worth Ranch was cloudless blue, the air clear enough to view a distant yellow cab ambling up the road that led to the main house. A small cloud of crimson dust billowed up in the taxi’s wake, before scattering to earth again.

“Looks like your wife’s finally here,” Wes said.

Clayton Worth followed the direction of his ranch foreman’s gaze and gave a curt nod. He didn’t have to tell him that Trisha Fontaine wasn’t going to be his wife much longer. Everyone in Red Ridge knew their marriage was over.

“Cover your ears, Wes.” Clay pulled off his leather work gloves and drew oxygen into his lungs. He shouldn’t care so damn much that Trish was late getting here—by three days—he hadn’t seen her for almost a year. “The fireworks are about to begin.”

Wes Malloy sent him a halfhearted smile. “Breaking things off ain’t ever easy, Clay.” His foreman had worked the ranch with Clay’s father way back when, helping Rory Worth build his massive cattle empire. Nothing had mattered more to Rory than the family and the ranch. The two went hand in hand. Rory’s dying plea had been for Clay to take over the reins at Worth Ranch and provide heirs to keep the family legacy strong.

But Clay hadn’t been able to keep that vow to his father.

Not only had Trish refused him children, but she’d suspected him of betraying his marriage vows. Her accusation cut deep and when she’d walked out on him, it had been the last straw. If he’d had any doubts about the divorce, it vanished when he’d gotten Trish’s voice mail message three days ago that something important had come up and she couldn’t make the Penny’s Song opening.

Something important was always coming up.

She should have been here. Despite their yearlong separation, the charity she helped him develop on Worth land for children recovering from illness should have meant more to her than that. He never thought she’d blow it off.

He’d been wrong.

Clay jammed his gloves into the back pockets of his Wranglers and took slow deliberate steps as he made his approach to the idling cab. He watched Trish get out of the backseat, stretching out her legs as she rose to her full height. Chest tight, Clay’s breath caught and he recalled the first time he’d met her, the first time he’d seen those beautiful mile-high legs, backstage at a black-tie function in Nashville. Clay’s country music superstardom had always brought big donors to charity events.

He’d bumped into her by accident—his big frame no match for her slender body. She toppled and he lunged for her just before she collided with the ground. He’d heard a rip from her too-tight dress and witnessed the gown split along the seam clear up to her thigh. Under the dim lights, her exposed skin glowed soft and creamy and something powerful happened to Clay then. Before he’d gotten her to a standing position, he asked her out to dinner. She’d refused him flat, but with a smile, and handed him her business card so he could make arrangements to pay for her ruined dress.

Hell, he never could resist a challenge and a beautiful woman.

But that was then.

“Trish.” He stood a few feet from her.

“Hello, Clay,” she said softly.

Unnerved by the breathy sound of her voice, he braced himself. It surprised him that she still could affect him that way. Trish’s sighs and little gasps poured fire into his veins. That much hadn’t changed. With a practiced eye, he skimmed over her body.

Half of her white blouse was out of the waistband of her pinstriped skirt. It hung along the side of her hip, haphazardly bunched. The tailored button-down blouse itself was travel-wrinkled, as she would say, stained by some mystery food and looking like it had seen better days. Long strands of her honey-blond hair stuck out of a cockeyed velvet bow in a bad attempt at a ponytail. Smudges of deep cherry-red lipstick colored the lower part of her chin.

In short, Trisha Fontaine Worth, his soon to be ex-wife, was a beautiful mess.

She caught his look of confusion. No one could ever say she was slow. “I know. Don’t say it. I look like something the cat dragged in.”

He was wise enough not to comment. “Bad trip?”

Trish shrugged. “Bad everything lately.” She darted a quick glance inside the backseat of the cab and then spoke to the taxi driver, “Give me one minute, please.”

When she faced him again, the weary tone of her voice bordered on apology. “I missed the opening of Penny’s Song. I tried reaching you a few times and well, I didn’t want to explain it to your answering machine.”

Clay had been piss angry with her for half a dozen reasons, but at the moment, he wasn’t so much mad as he was curious. What the heck was up with her? He’d never seen Trish look so…scattered. What happened to the ever capable, well-organized and fashion-conscious woman who’d stolen his heart three years ago?

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